In 1880 Henry James wrote to his friend Thomas Sergeant Perry (who was prepared to write an omnibus review of all James's work so far), "I would rather you should wait a few months, til my big novel (to be published this year) comes out. It is from that I shall myself pretend to date--on that I shall take my stand." "Big" The Portrait of a Lady would become, twice as long as anything he had previously written, and "big" because it is the first major work to prove him a genius.
I often begin classroom discussion of the book by having the students read and commit to memory the first sentence: "Under certain circumstances, there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." When I challenge anyone to quote the sentence word perfect, the usual mistakes include "hours in the day" and "pleasurable" for "hour in life" and "agreeable." I ask the class, "How old is the speaker?""Is he American or British?""Is it a comic voice or a tragic voice?" I confess I think the first page of the novel is the most perfect first page in our literature. The students call it "witty," but I caution them that it's clearly not witty in the manner of Oscar Wilde there are no aphorisms, no epigrams, no particularly quotable lines. The pace is supremely assured. Twenty-five years later, James made several big changes on the closing pages, his description of Isabel's first and only kiss, but in the beginning, on the first page, he changed not a word.